MANATEE -- Culinaria, the two-week celebration of restaurant offerings across Manatee County, drew mixed reviews in its first two days.
Twenty-four restaurants are involved in the popular promotion organized by the Bradenton Area Convention Visitors Bureau offering a three-course fixed-menu for $15 for lunch and $25 for dinner. Among the partners is Southern Living magazine.
One restaurant owner said diners are coming in for the promotion and buying meals. But he said Culinaria's passport feature, where diners must collect 12 stamps from area restaurants between Sept. 14-28 to be eligible for a grand prize, is too expensive.
"You have to get 12 stamps in two weeks and many people don't have that kind of money these days to dine out," said Kurt Petty, owner of the 15-month-old YachtSea Grille at 101 Riverfront Blvd. in downtown Bradenton.
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"We are getting people who want to eat but are not involved in the passport," Petty said.
Petty believes stretching the two weeks out to 30 days next year would take the strain off diners who want to enter the contest. Diners can only get two stamps at a single restaurant.
"I think we've had only one person on the passport," Petty said. "He came in for lunch and dinner to get two stamps. Now he has to get 10 more stamps to be eligible for a prize, which I think is a trip to Manhattan. This customer of whom I speak eats with us about five times a week already, however."
Petty said some diners don't understand why they don't get much of a choice of entrees in Culinaria.
"It is kind of tough because it's a fixed entree," Petty said. "For instance, our dinner entree is lemon thyme chicken served over cilantro-infused rice and a choice of a side item. But what if you don't care for chicken? You can't have another choice. I have had some customers who were not pleased."
YachtSea Grille offered New England clam chowder, grilled chicken arugula salad served with Mandarin orange bacon vinaigrette dressing and lemon-drop squares for dessert Sunday for the $15 lunch.
At Palmetto's waterfront Riverhouse Reef & Grill, Chef Ezequiel David Gramajo, also known as EZ, said he expects Culinaria to go swimmingly even though it started slowly Saturday.
"I am keeping the same entree for a week, until next Saturday, but I am able to change the entree for the final week," Gramajo said, a move he said will satisfy customers who may not want the fish entree.
The Riverhouse Reef & Grill did get some calls Sunday from people wanting more information on Culinaria, so interest is out there, Gramajo added.
Gramajo chose as his first fixed entree pan-seared or blackened fresh Atlantic wolffish with a side of mango tropical salsa and a choice of honey-apple cake ala mode with vanilla ice cream.
"I think it's a great idea," Gramajo said of Culinaria, whose goal is to stimulate dining out in Manatee during the slow months of August and September, according to Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, which helped put the event together.
The wolffish entree would cost about $24 by itself if the promotion was not on, Gramajo said.
"It gives people a chance to try a fish from the deepwater of Iceland that feeds on crab and lobster," Gramajo said.
Brionna Tepe, dining on the wolffish by Gramajo, pronounced it "mild, not too strong, sweet, and kind of buttery like lobster."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072.